Moscow – Center of the Russian Universe – Part 1

This was my first visit to Moscow, I was a blank slate. Holly on the other hand had visited Moscow during the depths of the cold-war with the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and did not have a positive memory of Moscow. The only positive thing she could say about Moscow was: “they have very impressive subway stations”. When Holly visited with fellow Pepperdine students on a controlled tour, they stayed at a foreigners-only hotel, went only where they were allowed to go with a guide, and one of her friends, Kathy (Cassidy) Hori returned to her room to find a woman going through her luggage (the woman apparently was not fazed by Kathy’s return because I’m told she took one look at Kathy and then continued to look through her bag until she was good and finished).

Holly was anxious to see the changes we both had read about, but hadn’t yet seen for ourselves. Like a lot of the other places we’ve seen in Russia, there is definitely a mix of the old soviet city and new and refurbished buildings, churches and monuments. Our hotel was in the city center not too far from the Kremlin, (one subway stop away), so we may have a bit of a skewed view of the city, since we were mostly in the “high rent” district and the main government district, which I suspect is the most well-kept part of the city.

The first thing we did in Moscow was to become acquainted with the subway system. Built during the Soviet era, the subway stations were built to be more than merely functional, to provide an exceptional space for the working people, a break from their otherwise dreary lives in small apartments and wretched working conditions. One of the stations we went to is decorated with statues built into the arches of the walls leading to the trains.

One statue includes a dog who you will note has a very shiny nose. As we stood and admired this statue, one Muscovite after another walked by and rubbed the dog’s nose. The belief is that rubbing the dog’s nose brings good luck. Holly and I both also rubbed the dog’s nose, we’ve been very lucky so far on this trip and we didn’t want to let any opportunity to keep our run of good luck rolling.

Red Square:

Our first stop after our introduction to the Moscow subway system was to go to Red Square. Having recently been to China, I was a little surprised at the size of Red Square – it is much smaller than Tiananmen Square in Beijing (approximately 73,000 square meters vs. 440,000 square meters). While we were in Red Square there was a temporary building (it looks like a Louis Vuitton trunk) being put up, along with a seasonal ice skating rink and a “New Year Tree” which made the square look crowded. In Russia, like Mongolia, they put up what we would call Christmas decorations, but they secularize the holiday by making it all about New Year, not Christ. For example, here St. Nick is called “Grandfather Frost”. (Here’s a view of Red Square looking north with Saint Basil’s cathedral behind the viewer – note the temporary construction.)

Red Square is bordered on the north by the State Historical Museum:

On the east side of Red Square is the GUM Department store:

Holly remembers visiting the GUM Department store in the late 1970’s and there was very little merchandise available. This has really changed. GUM is now an absolutely beautiful, very upscale store with very fashionable and expensive merchandise. During the communist era, some of the space was used as offices for Communist Party officials. We ate at a very nice cafeteria style restaurant on the 3rd floor that we were told is still very similar to what it looked like during the soviet era when it was a dining room for party officials. We walked through an upscale food shop and Holly bought some chocolates and soviet-era branded tea. She later found out, she couldn’t mail these items home, so she gave them to our guide in St. Petersburg. I also bought a tie at the Brooks Brothers store to replace the one (now spotted) tie I had brought for this trip.

One of the walls of the Kremlin form the west side of Red Square. About mid-way down the wall is the tomb of Vladimir Lenin – here Holly and I are standing in front of Lenin’s tomb:

If you read my blog post on Beijing, you may recall that we visited the mausoleum of Chairman Mao Zedong in Tiannamen Square. Mao’s mausoleum was very grand and it felt like people were making a religious pilgrimage to visit a saint in a communist cathedral. Lenin’s mausoleum is much less grand than Mao’s. We visited Comrade Lenin on a cold Thursday in November and it was not busy. Unlike Chairman Mao, there was no line, we just walked in, walked around the glass coffin, and left. Like Mao’s tomb, photographs are not allowed. Cameras, cell phones, etc. must be checked prior to entering Lenin’s mausoleum. To provide the photo below, I purchased a postcard at a nearby shop and took a photo of the postcard with my iPhone.

St. Basil’s Cathedral:
On the south end of Red Square is Saint Basil’s Cathedral, the iconic symbol of Moscow.

We explored the interior of St. Basil’s Cathedral by renting an audio-guide to take the tour inside of St. Basils.

From Wikipedia:’s_Cathedral : The Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat or Pokrovsky Cathedral are official names for St. Basil’s Cathedral. The church is also called the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, anglicized as Saint Basil’s Cathedral. It was built from 1555–61 on orders from Ivan the Terrible and commemorates the capture of Kazan and Astrakhan. The original building contained eight side churches arranged around the ninth, central church of Intercession; the tenth church was erected in 1588 over the grave of venerated local saint Vasily (Basil).

Here’s a photo of an iconostasis inside of one of the churches that make up St. Basil’s Cathedral:

The Bolshoi:
Kuznetsky Most (Blacksmith’s Bridge). This is a street with more high-end shopping near the Bolshoi Theatre. At one time there was a river running along two sides of the Kremlin, but one of the rivers was covered over and now runs under the city streets. The name of this street dates back to when blacksmith shops dominated the street and a bridge crossed the river.

I assumed that in addition to Lenin, I would see statues or monuments to Karl Marx. I was surprised to find, very few. Here’s a picture of one of the few statues/monuments I saw to Marx. This one is directly across the street from the Bolshoi Theatre.

Here’s a photo of the Bolshoi Theatre. The theatre was completely renovated a few years ago and it looks beautiful.

Inside the Bolshoi Theatre. The walls are ornately decorated with gilding.

Here’s a view of the Tsar’s box at the Bolshoi Theatre.

And just to prove we were there, here I am at the Bolshoi Theatre.

Before the show we met up with our new vodka drinking buddies from the Tran-Siberian, Mark & Jenny (see my Trans-Siberian blog post) for dinner at an Azerbaijani restaurant a few blocks from the theatre. It was a great to see them and we had a wonderful dinner and then we all headed over to the Bolshoi to enjoy the evening’s ballet.

The ballet we saw was Marco Spada. If you’d like a synopsis of the ballet go to: . Photography is not allowed during the performances, so I lifted these photos off the Bolshoi’s website to share a taste of what it was like. In short, it was great.

The music, the dancing, the costumes it was terrific.

Cathedral of Christ the Savior:

The Cathedral of Christ the Savior as seen from the balcony of our hotel room at sunset. From Wikipedia: “When Napoleon Bonaparte retreated from Moscow, Emperor Alexander I signed a manifest, 25 December 1812, declaring his intention to build a cathedral in honor of Christ the Savior “to signify Our gratitude to Divine Providence for saving Russia from the doom that overshadowed Her” and as a memorial to the sacrifices of the Russian people.” “The cathedral took many years to build and did not emerge from its scaffolding until 1860.”

The cathedral was destroyed by the Soviets as part of the anti-religious campaign in 1931 with the intention of building a monument to Soviet Communism on the site. Due to lack of funds, the monument was never built and in 1990 the Russian Orthodox Church was given permission to rebuild the cathedral.

Here’s another photo of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, taken from nearby on a cloudy day:

1 reply

  1. I took some time to read about that cathedral on Wikipedia and the history there is really fascinating. It’s such a shame that the original was demolished! And great picture of the Tsar box at the theatre. Wow!

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